San Pedro and Bolivian Salt Flats

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Travelling South America
Salt flats covered in water

If you ever get the chance to visit here, DO! 

Luna Valley, San Pedro

Having taken a 23 hour bus from Santiago to San Pedro, I arrived as the sunset over the Atacama desert. Even with the lights of San Pedro, the sky was filled with stars. 

Moonlit sky over San Pedro

San Pedro isn’t the cheapest place to stay because it is located in the middle of the desert and  surrounded by so many tourist attractions, hostels can afford to up their prices. However, whatever you pay, the cost is worth it. The town in very small and basic, with the majority of the buildings in the centre used by the 40+ tour agencies selling exactly the same trips. Although this choice of agencies can be slightly frustrating, it does present a great opportunity for haggling. 

Mountains rising above the ‘main’ street

San Pedro is one of the starting towns for the expeditions across the Bolivian Salt flats. The other options involve starting in Uyuni or Tupiza. The Tupiza option involves a lot of additional driving.

With the surrounding environment of San Pedro being very similar to that over the Bolivian borders. Many of the San Pedro day trips, visit very similar sites to those included in the Salt flat tour. Whilst in San Pedro, I opted for the Valle De Luna tour which takes you to several different stunning landscapes on the Chilean salt flats before finishing at Luna Valley for sunset. 

Las tres Marias
Licancabur volcano
Moulded by the wind over the years

Other trips offered in San Oedro include various astronomy tours to view the spectacular night skies, early morning visits to the worlds largest Geyser field, Sandboarding, and trips into the Atacama desert to see its lakes and weird geological formations. 

Geyser

Whilst the Atacama desert will wow you, the Bolivian Salt flats will absolutely blow you away. The tour involves a lot of time within the car, but stops are frequent and each is as spectacular as the next. 

James flamingos at Laguna Colorada

The three day/two night salt flat tour includes a visit to a small geyser field with magma pools as well as a number of weird and wonderful rock formations located in the vast desert. 

Geothermal pools
Valle de rocas
Laguna Negra
Camel Rock

Another stunning location is the Anaconda Valley, which offers vast views over a small canyon which hosts a slithering green river.

Anaconda Valley

There are also great opportunities to get up close and personal with the local Lamas and, if you’re lucky, they will have been dressed up by locals. Don’t get too close though, the farmers may get angry and the lamas may spit!

Lama fancy dress

The tour includes stops at various multicoloured lakes. These are coloured as a result of the minerals and sometimes bacteria found within them.

Laguna Blanca
Laguna Verde
Laguna Colorada
Flamingo on Laguna Colorada

Most spectacular of all comes on the final day when you make it to the true salt flats, for sunrise. I was lucky enough to time my visit in early April meaning that there was residual water from the wet season. This meant I had the chance for the sky, reflection pictures that everyone wants.

Pre sunrise
Pre sunrise reflections
Reflections on the salt flats
Sunrise
Stunning pastel colours
Almost as awesome in daylight

The rainy season on the flats comes in February and March, so views like this are almost guarenteed at this time of year. However, if there is too much water, many vehicles struggle to make it through the flats to other promised destinations. By timing your trip for the end of the wet season is you get the best of both! Wet ones allowing for reflection pictures and dry ones allowing for the also cliche perspective pictures.

Crushed by a giant foot
Dry salt flats

Before the tour drops you off in Uyuni ready for a warm shower, there is time for visits to a Salt museum, Artisanal market and the train graveyard. 

National flags outside the salt museum
One of the more modern looking trains at the train graveyard (courtesy of graffiti)
Old car at the artisanal market

If you’re interested, I paid 95,000 Chilean pesos for a 3 day trip which included all food and accommodation (one night in a salt hostel), local guide (only spoke Spanish). I also opted to pay the 5,000 extra so that I could pay by credit card. This means if there were any problems I could withdraw the payment. 

Morning silhouettes

For anyone taking this trip I would recommend taking something to protect your face from the dust which, even with the windows closed, can be brutal at times. Also pack lots of warm clothes as early starts expose you to sub zero temperatures before the desert warms up for the day!

Kick about at one of the lunch stops

For more images from the Bolivian Salt Flats check out my album

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Giants of St Andrews

This entry is part 41 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

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This second instalment from my latest incredible trip to St Andrews will involve fewer superlatives – because I used my quota up in the first instalment!

I have spent a year on this amazing island and over a quarter of my pictures have been taken in the two weeks spent at St Andrews Bay. This is no reflection on how ‘boring’ the rest of the island (it’s not) … but St Andrews Bay is flipping ridiculous!

Elephant seal bull relaxing in the snow
Elephant seal bull relaxing in the snow
Having a scratch
Having a scratch in the snow
Young male on the beach
Young male on the beach

As you’ll have seen from my previous blog, there are hundreds of thousands of breeding King Penguins resident here, but just as awesome are the majestic giants that span the entire shore front.

St Andrews Shore
St Andrews Shore
Where penguins meet steaming elephant seals
Where penguins meet steaming elephant seals

They are loud, they smell worse than the penguins and they very rarely move but when they do, the sheer power and strength on display commands your attention and respect.

Challenging bulls are frequent
Challenging bulls are frequent
Elephant Seal in one of the glacial lakes at St Andrews
Elephant Seal in one of the glacial lakes at St Andrews

Beachmasters will spend months on end within harems of hundreds of females, fighting off challenges and rivals in order for the chance to mate with the females once they have weaned their pups. The challengers are numerous and relentless, leaving the beachmasters little time to sleep and relax between bouts and duels.

New bull onto the beach checking out the competition
A new bull on the beach checks out the competition

There are considerable size differences amongst males and it is in the interest of both beachmaster and challenger not to waste energy/get injured in one-sided competitions. So, in order to prevent this from happening, males use their proboscis to amplify their roars, allowing competitors to calculate the size of their rivals and if a fight is worthwhile.

Steam from a bulls breathe as he roars out his battle cry
Steam from a bull’s breath as he roars out his battle cry

This means big fights only happen when there is an even match and, as a result, duels can last for tens of minutes as both rivals rear back and take turns to slam their bodies and teeth into each other.

Trying to get higher than your rival
Trying to get higher than your rival
Two evenly matched competitors
Two evenly matched competitors
Locked in battle
Locked in battle
The noise as each blow was made was insane
The noise as each blow was made was deafening
Sinking teeth into flesh
Sinking teeth into flesh

Blood is almost a guarantee and injuries are often haunting and sometimes even life-threatening.

Bull after a fight
Bull after a fight

Afterwards, the competitors are understandably exhausted and plaster themselves with cold stones or mud from the beach in order to help them cool off.

Mud mud glorious mud....
Mud, mud glorious mud ….
Cooling off
Cooling off

Our visit came during the peak pupping period and as a result, the beach was covered in new-borns suckling the fatty milk of their mothers. Born at approximately 40kg, these will reach 180kg by the time they wean just three weeks later.

Young pup begging for milk
Young pup begging for milk
Pup in the snow
Young pup in the snow
Weaned pups quickly move up the beach away from the busy harems
Weaned pups quickly move up the beach away from the busy harems

Saying goodbye was definitely very hard but I am very excited to say I’ll be back to St Andrews in January, this time on board the National Geographic Expedition ship!!!